Scottish ministers have been urged to scrap a rule allowing councillors to hold “secret” shares worth up to £25,000.
John Hutchison, chairman of the John Muir Trust (JMT), a conservation charity fighting the construction of wind farms in remote parts of Scotland, said councillors who are members of the JMT had been advised to absent themselves from planning decisions on wind farms because of a potential conflict of interest.
Yet under existing rules, councillors can hold tens of thousands of pounds in shares with a company and not have to declare it.
“These are surely double standards,” Hutchison said. “It seems astonishing that a councillor could have £24,000 of shares in a company applying for planning permission and that is not considered significant enough to register an interest.
“The limit for declaring shares should be drastically reduced, perhaps to something nearer £1,000.”
Under a 2009 code of conduct, the disclosure of shares is only necessary if their value is greater than £25,000 or more than 1% of the issued share capital of the company. There is nothing to suggest any councillor in Scotland has been unduly influenced by his or her share dealings but there is concern that a lack of transparency undermines public confidence in planning decisions.
The issue will be raised this week with Steve Barron, chief executive of Highland council, where there has been strong public opposition to wind farms. “Any councillor holding shares of any value at all should declare an interest and leave the chamber,” said Jim Crawford, an independent councillor for Inverness South. “The present ruling is iniquitous and could bring the planning process into disrepute. This must be changed by the Standards Commission immediately.
“With the Scottish government’s continued desecration of our natural heritage, any councillor holding shares in a wind farm which he or she does not have to declare could be tempted to vote with personal gain in mind.”
Hutchison’s remarks follow a decision by Scottish ministers to approve a 67-turbine wind farm near Fort Augustus. Highland council, which first scrutinised the Stronelairg application from Scottish and Southern Energy, did not object to the proposal.
Last week, the local authority confirmed that of 14 large wind farms ultimately signed off by the Scottish government since 2004, it had objected to only one.
The JMT is considering legal action over Stronelairg and has written to Fergus Ewing, the minister for energy, deploring the decision. It said the development should have been assessed by a public local inquiry.
A spokeswoman for the Scottish government said the code “reflects the outcome” of a public consultation and review carried out by the Standards Commission and representatives of Scottish local government.
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